On the road to Fort Berens in Lillooet – BC’s emerging wine region

Stacey and I were invited on a bus excursion from downtown Vancouver to Lillooet, BC, as guests of the owners of Fort Berens Estate Winery, ostensibly to see their new facility up-close and attend their grand opening. What the all-day adventure became was a fantastic window on the challenges and opportunities wine-making provides to drive economic development in some far-flung regions in British Columbia.

The City of Lillooet has a storied history of booms and busts, including being a part of Canada’s gold rush of the mid-19th Century. The town’s very existence rises out of some of British Columbia’s seminal history – the Fraser Canyon War of the 1850s, and the creation of the Douglas Road to protect gold prospectors and strengthen Britain’s control over their newly founded colony.

Lillooet is also one of the hottest places in the country with summer temperatures often exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (105 F). It is a small and close-knit community of about 2,300 permanent residents. I was charmed when one of our hosts named Armand Foisy, a longtime resident whose retirement was interrupted by a chance to work in Fort Berens’ tasting room, pointed across the river valley to say that townsfolk kept such a close eye on the winery they would call if someone had left the lights on after hours.

The proprietor couple Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek are both immigrants who moved to Canada from their home in the Netherlands to fulfill a dream of opening a winery. They originally eyed the Okanagan around 2005, and quickly discovered the price of real estate there was out of their reach. It was then that they were persuaded to explore Lillooet, and its much more affordable farmland.

Landowners in Lillooet had experimented in growing wine grapes, but de Bruin and Pannekoek were about to undertake the first large scale viticulture in this farming region. Thankfully they sought advice from well-known viticulturalists Dick Cleave and John Vielvoye, who had previously done some research in the Lillooet region. They found that the climate was similar to that of the South Okanagan, and the soils could support wine grape growing. In addition, wine industry legend Harry McWatters advised the owners on how to establish the winery.

Fort Berens Estate Winery is a 65-acre property at the junction of Highway 99 (Whistler to Cache Creek – also known as the Duffey Lake Road) and Highway 12 (Lytton to Lillooet). Early reports suggest the inviting location and sparkling new facility is drawing in many travelers driving the route between the coast and the Rockies along the Trans Canada highway. Just 2 hours from the resort town of Whistler, one can imagine that tour operators must be soon offering a round-trip bus excursions to the winery during the months when the slopes are closed to skiers.

What captivates me about Rolf and Heleen’s story is not so much their ascension as one of BC wine’s brightest newcomers, but their affect on a community in need of reinventing itself. The wine industry in B.C. is changing the complexion of tourism and agriculture in our province. It takes pioneering spirits like Rolf and Heleen – and their early investor Hugh Agro, seen above raising the flag – to see the potential of Lillooet as a wine region. But it is how the people of Lillooet embraced the winery that has made the real difference. There’s no better evidence of this than the presence of Lillooet’s former mayor Christ’l Roshard as one of the winery’s tasting room ambassadors.

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Establishing Lillooet as a new wine region is not without its challenges. In order to grow there will need to be a labour pool for the harvest period that currently does not exist. The Highway 12 route south to Lytton is beautiful, but not a good route for travelers in a hurry or commercial deliveries. A brittle rock face on the route just south of the town has forced the road to alternating traffic on a single lane, and there are no plans to rectify that soon.

Wireless mobile and data service – an indispensable commodity for travelers and business operators alike – is middling at best. One of Canada’s largest wireless providers Rogers Communications, for example, does not even service the valley. Bell and Telus do, however. The local city council should put wireless technology, or perhaps even free WiFi through a Shaw partnership at the top of its economic development agenda.

2014 has been a pivotal year for Fort Berens. Not only have they opened their fetching $3.5 million wine-making facility and tasting room, the winery received one of the province’s highest honours – a 2014 Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence in BC Wines. With this kind of credibility, it is expected that others will follow their lead and see the region’s potential. Google Earth reveals lots of farmland around the region, much of it that could be put to vine.

Also in attendance at Fort Berens’ September 18th reception was Sam Quinlan, co-founder of HOOH Hops Inc., an organic hops farm.

A SFU Masters graduate, Sam proudly wore some of his hops as a boutonniere. He’s also bullish on Lillooet, and hopes to catch the wave of excitement happening in B.C. for craft beer-making. Quinlan is among the young faces in the community which includes a South African couple – vineyard manager and viticulturist Megan DeVilliers and winemaker Danny Hattingh – who’ve just put down roots in Lillooet last spring.

In addition to a tour of the vineyard and new facility, we were treated to several of Fort Berens wine selections, including a luscious Chardonnay, a Riesling, a Meritage blend, and a captivating Cabernet Franc varietal wine that we brought home with us. Food at the occasion was outstanding – prepared by Chef Todd Baiden who works at Fat Jack’s Diner, located at The Mighty Fraser Motel in Boston Bar, BC.

The story of Fort Berens Estate Winery is a new chapter in the history of Lillooet, BC, and one that is sure to be exciting for the region as a whole!

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Our all-day bus tour began in downtown Vancouver, and traveled east to Hope, BC. The town of Hope is at the junction of three highways into BC’s interior, about 90 minutes drive east of Vancouver. Hope has its own burgeoning culinary attractions, such as 293 Wallace restaurant, situated right across from the Municipal Hall.

On the return to Vancouver, we also made a brief stop at the Four Seasons Hotel in Whistler, BC to visit the award-winning Sidecut Restaurant. We were all given a preview of the Cornucopia wine and dining festival, which takes place each November.

For more images from Fort Berens, Hope, BC and Whistler, visit our Flickr album from the trip.